With Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin. Written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley. Directed by Don Scardino. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language. 100 minutes.
When was the last time you went to a comedy that wasn’t about endlessly humiliating the protagonist or cataloging the bodily fluids characters could expel? It’s all right if you can’t remember. It’s been too long. THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE is a hilarious and quirky comedy about magicians that will have you laughing right up to the film’s final absurd gag.
Burt (Steve Carell) and Anton (Steve Buscemi) meet in childhood, both of them misfits constantly picked on by bullies. What seals their friendship is a shared love of magic. After a prologue we leap ahead to the duo at the height of their fame as the “magical friends” who wow audiences at the Las Vegas hotel run by Doug Munny (James Gandolfini). However the act is getting old, the friendship is strained, and Burt is so full of himself that he ignores all the warning signs that he’s heading into trouble.
When he loses it all, he tries to find his way back. He’ll need the help of Jane (Olivia Wilde), a one-time assistant he treated badly, and Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), the retired magician who inspired him as a child. Standing in his way is the even more egotistical Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), a magician who bills himself the “mind rapist” and whose antics are so outrageous that every other magic act seems like yesterday’s news.
What makes this work are the absurd gags brilliantly pulled off by an exceptionally top-notch cast. Buscemi and Gandolfini are not known for playing comedy, and both deliver. Alan Arkin, of course, is a pleasure in anything, and here he is the person who gets to deliver the moral of the story: what separates the “good” magicians from the “bad” ones is that the good ones remember the sense of wonder created by a great illusion. When Rance shows Burt a trick he points out that for audiences, seeing a master magician allows one – for the moment at least – to believe that anything is possible in the world.
Carell’s Burt has a long way to go to recapture that. When we first meet him he’s bragging that his personal suite at the hotel has the world’s largest bed. After he loses his job and is kicked out he’s shocked that he can no longer order room service. They won’t deliver. If this was merely a story of a heel’s redemption, it might be okay, but it is layered with some great comedy, from Steve Gray’s bizarre tricks to the Burt and Anton’s ultimate illusion which may be one of the greatest spoofs of magic shows this side of “Penn & Teller.”
“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” isn’t likely to become a comedy classic. What makes it special is that it creates its comic world and then runs with it, treating its characters – mostly – with respect so that we end up cheering for them rather than simply hoping the less slimy characters prevail. Like the good magicians, the filmmakers get us to believe that anything is possible in this world, even a comedy that doesn’t insult our intelligence.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.